Thursday, January 17, 2019

#FolkloreThursday: Badass folk versions of the classic fairy tales you're bored of

This post was born at an intersection of two issues that keep coming up when the media latches onto the topic of fairy tales. One of them is people making sweeping statements about folktales based on a very narrow canon, such as "women are always passive princesses in fairy tales" (I have blogged about this before). The other is the ever-present question of representation - what can we do if we don't like the kissy part of Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty? (I have blogged about this too). 
Since these questions keep circling around, and since I have a lot of data on my hands from Following folktales around the world, today I wanted to bring you a selection of lesser known, more badass folk variants of the stories we all love and are bored of.

Here we go.

Demon hunter Sleeping Beauty
Jan Knappert: Aicha's tasks on earth (The World and I, 2002.)

Contrary to popular belief, the central motif of Sleeping Beauty is not the kiss at all - it is the moment when something stabs her finger, and she falls under enchantment. While this enchantment is most often sleep, there are notable exceptions to the rule - Aicha among them. Aicha, the hero of an Algerian folktale, defeats and burns an evil ghoul, but a single splinter of bone remains, and it gets under her skin. With the injury comes the curse: Aicha cannot stay in one place, she has to travel the world. Taking advantage of her constant wandering (as well as her skills as a swordsman and a geomancer), she goes from city to city, killing demons, sea monsters, werewolves, and the like. She eventually gets rid of her own curse, and becomes a queen.


Cat burglar Cinderella
Jack Zipes: Catarina the Wise (University of Chicago Press, 2017.)

The Sicilian folktale of The Little Date Tree is by far my favorite version of the Cinderella story. Locked into the house with her two boring sisters, Ninetta decides to climb down the well after a stray thimble. She accidentally discovers a portal that leads straight into the king's gardens - and she decides this is a good opportunity to rob him blind. After days of coming and going, and stealing fruit, flowers, and decorations, she is eventually noticed by the prince - who announces a ball with the sole purpose of catching the pretty yet mysterious thief. Ninetta shows up repeatedly, makes fun of the prince, and eventually drives a hard bargain, getting the king to make her her father's heir before asking for the prince's hand in marriage.


Wolf hunter Riding Hood
Dékány Rafael: A pityke és a kökény (Argumentum, 2004.)

In this Hungarian folktale, a little girl lives in a cave in the forest all alone. She lives in comfort through the summer, but when winter hits, wolves get hungrier as the weather gets colder, and finally one of them sniffs out her home. The girl, who is in the process of boiling lye for soap when the wolf appears, pours the whole cauldron of it on the hungry beast, scalding its fur off. Later the wolf returns with a whole pack for revenge. The girl climbs a tree to get away from them. In true cartoon fashion, the wolves stand on each other's shoulders to reach her, with the naked wolf at the bottom. When they get close enough, she screams "More boiling water!", and the naked one jumps out of the bottom of the pile. The girl has wolf furs to warm her for the rest of the winter.


Sorceress Rapunzel
Italo Calvino: Italian folktales (Mariner Books, 1992.)

Okay, so The Canary Prince is not technically the same folktale type as Rapunzel, but it does feature a girl locked in a tower. In this case, it happens to keep her out of the way of her evil stepmother. Looking out of the tower, she falls in love with a prince who is hunting in the woods, and thanks to a mysterious old woman, she acquires a book of magic. She learns how to turn the prince into a canary so that he can visit her, and how to turn him back. The stepmother eventually tries to sabotage the secret affair, and mortally wounds the prince. The girl is not deterred; she rescues herself from the tower, gains some knowledge from a group of witches in the woods, and goes off to save the prince.


Sister rescue from Bluebeard's castle
Clara Stroebe: The Danish Fairy Book (New York, 1922.)

Bluebeard is widely regarded as a cautionary tale about marrying a handsome stranger, and finding out that he has dead wives locked in his closet. In the eponymous version, the girl's brothers arrive just in time to get rid of the evil man and save their sisters. There is another tale type, however - such as the Danish tale of The Pig in the book above - which is essentially the same story, except here the youngest sister first helps her older sisters escape from the murder castle (usually by reviving them, and hiding them in luggage), and then she smuggles herself out as well. In a Hungarian variant, the evil man goes on to stalk her, until the Virgin Mary pops out of Heaven to tell him that he has no right to any woman. 


Cajun Snow White
W. B. McCarthy: Cinderella in America (University Press of Mississippi, 2007.)

Okay, so this one is more cute than badass, but here it is: In Snow Bella, the persecuted princess finds shelter in the house of two Dwarves and their adopted (human) younger brother. The evil queen tries to kill her three times; the first two she is saved by the youngest brother's quick thinking and keen eyes for detail. The poison apple thing goes the usual way, except there is no kiss: When they are taking her to be buried, one of the brothers stumbles with the coffin (probably because of the height difference), the apple bite dislodges from her throat, and she wakes up. In the end, she marries the youngest brother, because they have fallen in love over the years spent together. No questionable prince in sight. 


Moral of the story: Variants of folktales can differ a lot from each other, and there are some true gems out there for the telling. Have fun!

Monday, December 31, 2018

306 earworms in 2018


Am I the only one who wakes up with music in her head? This is not a rhetorical question: The people I have asked so far looked at me really weird. And yet I can't help it: Most mornings, when I wake up, there is a random song stuck in my ears. It sometimes sticks with me all morning; other times I listen to something else to chase it away. But whether I like it or not, there seems to be a radio alarm clock in my subconscious. This year, when I started my new bullet journal (don't judge), I decided to write down every morning what my intro song to the day was. And the results are in:

Between January 1st and December 31st in 2018, I woke up with a song in my head 306 times. Monthly, this means between 21 and 28 mornings, so the phenomenon is pretty consistent. July had the most such mornings (28), and February and May had the fewest (21). But this is not really about statistics - this is about the music.

I want to note up front that I have absolutely no control over what music I hum when I wake up. Sometimes it's a song I listened to the day before, but often it is something I have not heard for years, or something I never even liked. Sometimes I wake up with the same song three days in a row, other times I have to hum all morning before I realize where the tune is from. The list is long: There are 150 different songs on it, and while many of them popped up more than once, here are the top 5 most common:

 Top of the list (12 mornings):


Second place (11 mornings):


Also second place (11 mornings):


Third place (10 mornings):


Also third place (10 mornings):


+ My personal favorite to wake up to (7 mornings):


+ When I wake up as a feminist (also 7 mornings):


When I look at albums, the list is a little different: I had a large number of Hamilton songs (Alexander Hamilton 10, Satisfied 7, Wait for it 5), and most of the Moana soundtrack (We know the way 7, How far I'll go 6, Shiny 5, You're welcome 4), as well as a healthy dose of Renaissance dance music and Blackmore's Night (courtesy of my reenactment hobbies). On the other end of the spectrum I had quite a few WTF moments, but the negative record came from the opening of a soap opera that my grandmother used to watch religiously when I was little. The song, somehow embedded in my subconscious, resurfaced to ambush me one morning. Here you go:


I think I'm going to continue with this experiment in 2019, just for the fun of it (maybe my grandchildren will find it interesting one day). In the meantime, the question remains: Am I the only one with built in Spotify, or do others wake up like this too?...

Saturday, December 29, 2018

2018: The year in (good) books

Once again, it is time for the usual end-of-the-year book roundup. In 2019 I read (as in, finished reading) 157 books total, which may sound like a lot, but it does include several comic book tpbs. Within this number, 40 volumes were for the Following folktales around the world project (I finished Europe!), and 19 for a reading challenge that required me to read one folktale a day. Out of the remaining 98, here are the highlights of my year, in no particular order:

Juanita Harrison: My great, wide, beautiful world
I spent the year systematically reading travel journals written by women, and this one definitely took the cake. I wrote an entire blog post about it when I finished, you can read it here. Juanita Harrison, a woman of color, set out at the beginning of the 20th century, with no money but great enthusiasm, to travel alone around the world. She reports her adventures with so much love and cheer that it is impossible not to love her. She has a great time sailing in a typhoon, gives away her belongings more than once (but keeps her favorite sexy undergarments), sleeps in the flowerbeds of the Taj Mahal, leaves some men in the dust, gets a library card in every city, and spends her hat money on museum tickets. Ever since then I like to travel with the mentality of What Would Juanita Harrison Do?
Also, I found her photo, isn't she lovely?



Jen Wang: The Prince and the Dressmaker
Possibly the cutest read of the year, this graphic novel tells the tale of a prince that secretly likes to dress up as a princess, and a dressmaker who wants to be a designer. The tale is told with beautiful colors, expressive artistic style, lots of humor, and an adorable romance plot. Definitely a feel-good book to invest in.
Madeline Miller: Circe
Circe, badass witch of Greek mythology, long deserved her own epic - and Madeline Miller have her a great one. She knows her mythology, and her prose style is gorgeous; I read this book slowly, tasting all the sentences like wine. I also have not read a novel in a long time that had such vivid imagery, and such meaningful, subtle color schemes. Circe's story became whole from the fragments we know, and it is an amazing story indeed. If I had to pick a favorite book of the year, this one would be a strong contender.




Kate Heartfield: Armed in her fashion
Talking about strong contenders: I only recently discovered Kate Heartfield, but I have already finished everything she's written. She has a great sense of humor, a smart writing style (which does not dumb things down for the reader, thank god), and unique ideas. Case in point: This book features a disgruntled wet nurse who sets out to conquer Hell and demand her money back from her good-for-nothing zombie husband. She is accompanied by a great cast of characters, from her shy daughter to a transgender mercenary, and they fight they way across the best historical fantasy setting I have ever seen. By the way, the book is based on a Brueghel painting, you might be familiar with it:


Erik Larson: The Devil in the White City
I don't normally read true crime, therefore this book has long been on my TBR, and ended up being a surprise. I originally started it because of H. H. Holmes (American Horror Story references), but soon realized that there is another, much more intriguing story in the book: The creation of the Chicago World Fair. If someone told me a book on architecture and bureaucracy could be so riveting that I'd skip the serial killer chapters, I would not have believed it. And yet. I would love to see a well done HBO show based on this one.


Juan Diaz Canales - Juanjo Guarnido: Blacksad
Similarly, if someone told me I'd have a crush on a cat in a trench coat, I would have given them a very strange look. I know I am late to the party, but now that I have finally gotten around to reading Blacksad, I totally see what the fuss is all about. Furry noir might sound ridiculous, but oh boy, does it work. The story has all the mandatory elements of good noir, and the artwork is just gorgeous, full of details and expressive faces. Definitely and instant classic.


Happy reading in 2019! Tell me about your favorites! :)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Islands made of flowers (Following folktales around the world 96. - Portugal)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Portugal is our last stop in Europe. The series will take a short winter break, and we'll continue in February with Africa!


Islands of Magic
Legends, folk and fairy tales from the Azores
Elsie Spicer Eells
Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1922.

I have been looking forward to reading this collection for a long time. The 34 stories were collected in 1920-21 by Elsie Spicer Eells to prove that folktales were still alive in the oral tradition on the Azores. She re-worded the stories "for American children" and published them with pretty illustrations. Because the islands were uninhabited before the Portuguese colonization (or so we assume), the stories mostly come from the Portuguese and larger European tradition. Since this is a book for children, it did not contain any sources or notes, but it was still an interesting read.

Highlights


The most interesting stories in the book were the islands' own legends. Princess Bluegreen, for example, told about how a princess taken by the fairies, and an impatient king, brought destruction to Atlantis, which sank in the place where the Azores are now. Another legend claimed the islands were born from flowers dropped by an angel who was exiled from Heaven, and wanted to bring their favorite flowers with them. There were other marine legends as well, such as the Island of Seven Cities (a medieval classic), or the Island of St. Brendan that appears and disappears at times. The latter had a beautiful love story attached. about a knight that fell in love with a girl, and fled to the legendary island from an earthquake to live on together. Another pretty local legend what that of the Pearl necklace, in which a handsome fisherman was abducted by a mermaid, but his mother won him back by magic. Later, when he married a mortal woman, he found a necklace of pearls on the beach, but did not remember who it was from...
Among the fairy tales, my favorite was about The princess who lost her rings - mostly because she was helped by two old storyteller women. I also enjoyed St. Anthony's godchild, who dressed up as a boy and stole things from a Moorish king. I have encountered this tale type both with male and female heroes, but this was the first one with a female hero disguised as a boy. I also loved The daughter of the King of Naples, in which a prince set out to marry the princess of Naples - without actually knowing whether Naples had a princess or not. In the end, it did, and she accidentally ran away with the wrong man, and it took some time to find her again.


Connections

After Oceania and America I once again encountered a story that explains Why dogs sniff each other. In this case, they do it because one of them left a party to get some pepper, and never came back, so they have to look for the smell of spices on everyone. I also found a parallel of an Italian folktale here, in which a girl was asked if she wanted to be unlucky while young or while old; she picked a former, and had to work through a flood of misfortune before she could settle down. Saint Peter's mother appeared once again, and once again did not make it into Heaven - hence the Portuguese saying "Standing in the door like Saint Peter's mother."
There were several familiar fairy tale types, such as Three kidnapped princesses, Magician's apprentice, Tom Thumb (Manoel Littlebean), and Snow White (a dark and gory version, but at least the dwarves turned into princes in the end). The Portuguese version of Catskins, Linda Branca, was especially interesting because the girl did not run away from her father, but rather set out disguised as an ugly servant because she was tired of being too beautiful and getting too much attentin. Of course she changed her mind in the end.
As for tricksters, there was Peter-of-the-pigs, who tricked others, but was ultimately tricked to death himself. There was also a classic "top of the crop, bottom of the crop" trickster story in the book.

Where to next?
We will reach Africa at Morocco!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

5+1 little known Christmas folktales (Following folktales around the world)

Since there is only one Following folktales around the world post left for this year - and that post is also the last country from Europe - I wanted to make a special collection of Christmas stories that I have encountered on the journey so far.

Every year, storytellers frantically search for new tales to tell around the winter holidays. There is an entire publishing industry built on Christmas stories, and there are classics that never go away - from The Gift of the Magi to Christmas Spiders. While reading stories from the three continents I completed in the challenge, I encountered some folktales that are not very well known in the storytelling community, but would make a great addition to the holiday lineup.
In no particular order, here they are:

El palo del ocote 
Honduras
A young boy learns from his grandmother that one should talk to trees, because they listen. So, he makes friends with a Montezuma pine in the mountains, and invites it home for Christmas. While everyone laughs at the boy's attempt to make a tree friend, on Christmas eve the giant tree does show up at the house to celebrate with the family.



Anancy and Sorrel
Jamaica
Anancy the Trickster wants to go to the Christmas market, but has nothing to sell or barter. He finds some pretty red flowers, and he decides to pick them and sell them - but people suspect the trickster of trying to cheat them, and chase him around until he dumps the flowers into a pot of boiling water. The water turns red and tastes good, so people start adding spices and fruit to it. And thus, sorrel, a Jamaican Christmastime drink is born.

The Fairies' Mist Gate
England
The fairies kidnap a little boy's baby sister on Christmas eve, so he sets out to rescue her with the help of a talking cat, a donkey, and a church Grim. They have to get through the mists surrounding the fairy hill, and take the baby while keeping the Little Folk away. A tale of adventure, teamwork, and magic.

Hildur, Queen of the Elves
Iceland
The tale starts with a mystery - every Christmas eve, a shepherd dies on a farm - and leads into a nighttime journey to the land of the Elves. Hildur, a servant at the farm, turns out to be a fairy queen in exile, who can only travel home to see her family once a year, until her curse is broken by a brave mortal who is willing to accompany her.

Aguinaldo
Spain
Two poor children set out into the winter forest on the night of Reyes (the night of January 6th, when the Three Wise Men bring gifts to Spanish children) to find the Wise Men and point them to their little cottage. Instead, they encounter a mysterious lady who sends the on a quest to an enchanted castle. In the end, they do get an abundance of gifts for their bravery.

The mischievous sons of Father Frost
Estonia
In this fun Estonian folktale a poor farmer receives three visitors in a row. Each is a son of Father Frost, and they make life of their gracious host increasingly uncomfortable by filling his house with ice and still complaining about the heat. The eldest one, however, turns out to be doing good work - winter cold is needed just as summer heat - and he gifts the patient farmer two bags (one hot and one cold) so that he can manage the weather over his own fields.

Today is the last #FolkloreThursday of the year. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year, everyone!


Monday, December 10, 2018

Land of witches (Following folktales around the world 95. - Andorra)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Andorra is a Catalan-speaking country, so I had trouble finding a full book of folktales in a language that I could read. But I did manage to scavenge up some Andorran legends and tales from the Internet. Here they are:

The piper of Ordino

A famous piper is on his way to play at a wedding when he is attacked by wolves. He climbs a tree and starts playing the pipes; the sound makes the wolves flee. Villages find him the next morning, still playing his music to keep the wolves away.

The White Lady of Aubinyá

A greedy bishop takes advantage of the poor, until the White Lady, a woman who inherited the lands from her father, lures the bishop into the deep woods, and he is never seen again. At the same time, a large wolf starts prowling the forests. Draw your own conclusions.

Lake Engolasters

A beggar arrives to a small town, but no one takes pity on him; people chase him away or trick him, until a girl takes pity and gives him some bread. In exchange, he advises her to flee immediately. That night a flood drowns the entire town, and Lake Engolasters is born. The lake becomes a favorite bathing place of Andorran witches.
(Here is another version)


The Virgin of Meritxell

On the day of the Three Wise Men (January 6) people on their way to church find an image of the Virgin under a blooming rose bush. They take the image to the church, but by the next morning it miraculously returns to the bush, so they build a chapel for her there instead.

The seven-armed cross

A boy is terrified of the devil, so seven other boys decide to trick him. They send him for wine at night, armed with an (unloaded) pistol. Sadly, the shopkeeper loads the pistol for him, and on the way back he ends up shooting the boy dressed in bed sheets who is trying to scare him. At the place of the accident a cross appears with seven arms.

The rock of witches

This legend explains the origins of the Bronze Age rock carvings pictured below. It is said that Andorran witches fought the devil and threw him off a cliff; the claws of the devil left the marks on the rocks.


Where to next?
Portugal!

Monday, December 3, 2018

Nobody expects the Spanish princesses (Following folktales around the world 94. - Spain)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


Cuentos ​Populares Españoles
José María Guelbenzu
Siruela, 2006.

The book contains 117 Spanish folktales, somewhat re-worded for contemporary readers from their dialects, but kept in their original shape. It is a good selection from all the regions of Spain, including Catalonia and the Basque Country. There are sources in the end, but the tales themselves follow each other without chapters or themes, so it was a surprise every time I turned the page to see what would come next - fairy tale, legend, anecdote, or something else? It is a great, colorful, enjoyable selection with many memorable stories.

Highlights


Right now, just before the holidays, it was nice to read Aguinaldo, the tale of two poor children who set out to direct the Three Wise Men to their cottage (because the year before they did not get any presents from them). They meet a lady instead, who sends them on an adventurous journey to an enchanted castle. Similarly touching was the story of the Repentant robbers, in which a holy monk mocked an arrested criminal for being destined to Hell - and then he got a divine reminder that anyone can change for the better if they want to. The tale of The purest blood also had a timely lesson that a king taught to his mean son - that his blood is the same read as the blood of the poor, and his infant child also looks the same. The Catalan story of the Green Cap, on the other hand, had a less optimistic message. In it, a witch gave a man a cap that let him hear everyone's thoughts - and he soon concluded that all people are horrible.
One of my favorite stories was The sewing box of the anjana. A poor woman found the sewing kit of an anjana (one-eyed witch), and after giving away each pin for a good cause, she was rewarded with help for rescuing her son from a giant. The tale of The Dwarf also had a female hero, who, after accidentally eloping with the wrong guy, rescued a princess for eternal torture. A long list of other female heroes followed: Three sisters rescued themselves from a giant's Castle with Seven Towers, and a wife accused of adultery proved her innocence with a pair of Golden shoes and genius trickery. Dwarves also made other appearances, among them one where a Sepherd befriended a Dwarf, and they rescued a princess together.
Some well-known tale types took unexpected turns in this book. The Sleeping Princess was a Sleeping Beauty variant where the girl was awakened by the prince pulling the splinter from her hand (bonus points), but after she got pregnant the prince went home to his wife (minus point). The wife then tried to get rid of the other family by cooking the kids and serving them to her husband (minus points), and while the princess and the prince eventually married, the kids did not come back to life like in other versions. Angelina and the Lion was a Beauty and the Beast variant where the woman looking for her husband dressed as a soldier, and killed the dragon as a side quest. The Dragon Prince was saved by a girl who had to make a shirt out of a princess' hair to break his curse - the princess turned out to be his sister in a surprising plot twist. It was also a princess who made herself a Louse Skin drum and offered a reward to whoever could guess its origins; a man, with the help of some people with superpowers, guessed right, and got a reward (but not the princess). The ring that said "I'm here" was a classic Cyclops-legend, except here the hero was a clever girl rather than Odysseus.
Some tales ended on a less triumphant note: In The charcoal burner and Death a mortal tried to trick Death, but Death pretended to hang herself, and tricked the mortal instead by giving him a false sense of triumph. The story of the heroic Juan y Medio ended when the hero kidnapped a princess, who in turn tricked him with the age-old "tar baby" trick, left him to drown in the ocean, and went home.

Connections


I encountered many of my favorite tale types in this book. There was a version of the Three Gifts story, where the princess wanted three husbands, but her father insisted that she should choose. When the three princes used their magic objects to save her together, she said "see, all three were needed!", and married all of them. Lavender Flower was a variant of my favorite Italian Canary Prince, and Green Rose (Rosa Verde) was a variant of the fiery Mediterranean Basil Maiden. Also Mediterranean is the story of the marriage of Butterfly and Mouse, which I have encountered in South America before.
The best changeling story I have read so far was that of the Lost Boy. In it, the husband kept trying to kill the changeling child, but the wife kept stopping him, saying the changeling was just a child, and deserved love. Eventually, the real child was also found, and it turned out that the wife's kindness had broken the spell.
There were many, many classic tale types featured in the book: Tom Thumb (Periquillo), Two Hunchbacks, Thee oranges (here the fairies appeared from the oranges with their children in their arms), Hero who could turn into three animals, Bluebeard (the girl saved herself and her sisters), Three spinners, Puss in Boots, Princess in the shroud, Princess that saw everything, Blacksmith and the devil (or Juan Soldado), Tía Miseria and Death, Animal Bride (here with a frog, helped by her sister who was a snake), Brementown Musicians, Devil's three golden hairs, Raven brothers (here lion brothers), Faithful servant (here the kid stayed dead too), Gold-spitting prince, Stone of Pain and Dagger of Love (I knew this as a Turkish tale), Fortunatus, Girl who turned into a man (specifically so that she could marry into the royal family), Juan el Oso, Extraordinary helpers, Princess who stole magic items from three heroes, Queen bee, Three Little Pigs (with female pigs who built houses together).
As for tricksters, Juan Bobo and the fox deserve a mention (the latter for the classic down-into-the-well trick she used on the wolf).

Where to next?
Andorra!